Athens for Stoics, and everyone
Expectations are the crux of a happy life, as Marcus Aurelius and the rest of the Stoics argue. Wake up every morning and reflect on the bad things that are likely coming your way. Screw down your expectations, and your chances of avoiding disappointment go up. Be reasonable. So if most Greek restaurants in Paris, London, or pretty much anywhere are an indicator of what to expect when dining in Athens, one should not go there for the food with high expectations. That would be unreasonable. One should reasonably expect overcooked everything swimming in oil with a spice mix for infants. Never mind the Bouzouki music and high-kitsch décor.
And if you take your Greek summer vacation Taverns as a guide, a few yards from the sea on some heavenly island, you should expect fish that has been grilled to death drenched in lemon and oil sauce, lukewarm indistinguishable stews ladled from huge pots, or béchamel covered cheese-noodle-bricks. You ate it because you were hungry coming off the beach and the tomato and cucumber salad with feta was like divine intervention. You probably drank the Ouzo too, maybe you took a bottle home on the plane and drank some far away from Tinos, lets say, and then realized that some metaphysical influence of time and place must have transformed it somehow when you were there. Call it Greek summer magic.
We were going to Athens in January. No summer magic. I had lived in the city for a year in the 80’s, and I can’t remember ever waking up before five in the afternoon back then. Life was an all-night party every night, and with regards to food there was Gyros, Spinach Pies and around dawn, drunk and ravenous, a visit to the central market, where, tucked behind bustling halls of dead animals and chopping blocks, a 24-hour canteen of sorts would help us. It was the best. Never mind the food. But, as we began researching our trip, a vision of good things slowly materialized. Soon it was getting harder and harder to choose from a host of enticing possibilities. This new culinary Athens presented itself, fresh, international, yet with its own take on things. The Greek chefs had traveled and worked with the best, before coming home and taking their fantastic local ingredients to create a gourmet style of their own. The hype was good, but would it measure up to what Fabien was used to in France?
What’s more, there is a tender informality to Greek hospitality. Even at the most posh places, the military routine of a liveried doorman or waiter quickly gives way to a chat. And time never seems to be a constraint. I am sure, on average, people wear fewer wristwatches than in the rest of the EU, and if they do, they rarely check them. It’s not a country of organizers but of laid back individuals with an opinion on everything. This makes consistency hard to achieve. Did these new chefs have the ability to manage their workforce and have their establishments be tip-top every day?
Well, we went to eat at Aleria, Argura, Nolan, Hytra, Microcyclades, Durambeis and Spondi, and to make a long story short, we discovered a splendid mix of hard-working, knowledgeable professionals at every level. In five days and nights we did not face an unpleasant moment, a sub-par dish or less than friendly face. The sommeliers knew their stuff and were happy to discuss every vintage in detail. The tender informality combined with professional aplomb. And the almost religious tradition of offering guests something, a dessert, a round of spirits, on the house was alive and well. So you can go to Athens and reasonably expect world-class dining experiences. You won’t be disappointed.